How Immanuel Kant would kill trolls: A deontological approach to dealing with online comments

By Emily Williams

The word “troll” used to refer to monsters in fairy tales living under bridges, but in the new age of the internet, troll has taken on a whole new meaning, as the monsters that live behind keyboards and terrorize comment sections on virtually every website.

Dealing with trolls, and other maliciously inclined commenters, is an issue of particular relevance to news websites. What is the best strategy for moderating comments and how far is too far?

Comments can be a good source of feedback for the writer, to find gaps in their reporting, viewpoints that may not be represented or even new questions to pursue. They can also encourage interaction and debate among readers who are engaging with the material. But which comments are appropriate for the web and which aren’t?

The debate about comment moderation creates tension between two important tenants of journalism, loyalty to readers and loyalty to the principles of free speech. On one hand, you want to block offensive material from the comment section so as not to offend readers; but on the other hand, you want to keep the forum open for readers to speak their minds, to encourage honest reaction and discussion. You don’t want your readers to feel like they have to compose a masterpiece before their opinions can be posted.

Once you start moderating comments, it can become a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line between what is offensive and what isn’t? Who’s judgment do you rely on to determine this? There is the potential for someone to moderate comments they disagree with and only let in comments that support their viewpoint.

Ethical philosophy presents two distinct viewpoints that can provide guidance on how to moderate comments. Teleology suggests that the best course of action is utilitarianism, providing the most good for the most people. Depending on how you interpret this, the most good could mean the comments that are least offensive to the people, or the comments that spark the best discussion for the benefit of learning.

On the other side of ethical philosophy, deontology prescribes a rule-based approach to handling the issue. Deontology would suggest that the best course of action is to establish a strict set of rules about how you’re going to moderate these comments, and following them every time.

Given that the teleological point of view can be subjective depending on one’s interpretation of the greater good, it makes the most sense to follow the deontological point of view, and outline a clear policy for moderation, which is made clearly visible to the reader.

But just what rules should be in that policy? Let’s consider what rules some of the biggest names in journalism are abiding by.

The New York Times only opens a few of its most newsworthy articles for comment each day and leaves the article open for comments for just 24 hours. Each comment is reviewed by a staff member before posting The Times’ policy for comment moderation is to reject any comments that they consider “inflammatory,” meaning they include name calling, rudeness, or obscenity.

“We see these comments as an extension of our journalism,” said NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in a post outline comment guidelines. “We value the input of a majority of our commenters and are not willing to have their words devalued by running them alongside personal attacks, innuendo and obscenity.”

NPR has a similar approach regarding comment moderation. In a 2014 letter to NPR readers, Anne Johnson explained the specifics of NPR’s process of moderating comments and their rules for what is allowed and what isn’t.

“NPR, like many news organizations, constantly walks a tight-rope in trying to encourage both lively discussion and respect,” Johnson wrote.

NPR uses outside comment moderators, as well as reporters and editors to monitor their comment sections. Comments go through three filters, both human and machine, to prevent spam messages and monitor for offensive or off-topic content. They also give readers an option to flag messages as inappropriate.

The larger the website, the bigger a task moderation becomes. According to Johnson, NPR receives roughly 200,000 comments per month, which all go through their three-tier system.

Most effective, perhaps, are the Washington Post’s “Discussion and Submissions Guidelines” which are linked to every post on their website. The guidelines serve as a contract that the reader must agree to before submitting, which include definitions of what is considered inappropriate material and a disclaimer stating that readers are fully responsible for their own commentary.

This seems to be the most ethical strategy, because it is a clearly-defined, consistent code and readers are very well informed from the beginning what they can and cannot post.

As gatekeepers for public access to information, it is the responsibility of the journalist to monitor the discussion surrounding their story; however, journalists should establish clear boundaries of what they consider inappropriate commentary, so as to remain transparent and impartial.

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What I learned from working on the Society of Professional Journalists’ new Code of Ethics

With SPJ President David Cullier at the 2014 business meeting in Nashville.
With SPJ President David Cullier at the 2014 business meeting in Nashville, where the new ethics code passed. (Photo by Meredith Cummings)

This month’s biggest personal and professional success may not make it on my tombstone, but it is a thrill to note that words I wrote are included in the Society of Professional Journalists’ new code of ethics.

Delegates of the nation’s largest journalism association approved the code on Sept. 6, 2014, nearly 18 years after the last revision and a lifetime since the Internet fundamentally changed the business, collection, and publication of news.

While the code introduces new concepts, it insists that the fundamental ethics of journalism have not changed. The code’s four pillars remain: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. That fourth pillar was strengthened with the addition of “…and transparent” as a core value—an explicit reminder of principles of messenger transparency indirectly stated in previous codes but more important in the Internet age.

I was part of the 16-person committee that worked a year on the code. Committee members wrote and revised three drafts of the code, listening to each other and literally hundreds of suggestions from members. The committee met at (The) Ohio State University in July, where a long Saturday ended with a “final” draft we circulated to members before the Excellence in Journalism ’14 convention in Nashville, Tenn.

It wasn’t final, of course. While at the Opryland Hotel, we listened to concerns during a panel Friday morning open to all SPJ members. We revised the code after that meeting, listening to specific concerns from a board member who had line-edited the draft. We made more changes during an open-to-all comers committee meeting Friday afternoon. We revised the code again Saturday, listening to specific concerns from a chapter whose members had line-edited the draft. I sat on the platform to explain those changes Saturday afternoon during the sometimes-contentious SPJ business meeting, where delegates approved (and voted down) still more changes before overwhelmingly approving the code.

The result is what fellow member Stephen J.A. Ward describes as a depersonalized code, because it focuses on core values that describe ethical journalists regardless of their jobs, employers, or the channels they use to gather and disseminate news. The SPJ code remains different from journalism-focused companies whose codes are essentially employment contracts, and different from the Online News Association’s “build your own” code aimed at individuals who want to roll their own.

The code also makes SPJ different from many specialty journalism groups with specific sets of standards and practices aimed at their line of work. This is based on SPJ’s mission of being a broad-based organization aimed at all who do journalism. But this broad-based code will not be sufficient to help journalists make daily decisions, and it does not sufficiently spell out what some of its abstract values mean in practice. The next step for the committee is building its website to include documentation, case studies and practical advice for journalists. We’ll likely disagree on specifics. This is not a bad thing, because no code can rule in every situation, because the First Amendment provides freedom of the press, and because well-meaning, truth-seeking people will disagree.

Thinking online

Committee members spent a great deal of time thinking about online journalism, but a careful reader will notice that the code doesn’t include channel-specific words such as “online,” “social media,” “tweet” or “link.”

Yet the channels that have blossomed since the 1996 revision are fully represented in the code’s concerns about:
♦ Accuracy – “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” is new to the code, as is the reminder to verify information (even from other news sources) before spreading it.”
♦ Context – “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”
♦ The Internet’s report-it-as-we-go approach, which is far from the once-a-day cycle for many journalists a generation ago – “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”
♦ Online commenting – “Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they [journalists] find repugnant.”
♦ Linking – “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.”
♦ Privacy, even “private” information found in public spaces – “Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
♦ The Internet’s “easy-to-find, never-goes-away” qualities – “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.”  (That’s a line I wrote that made it into the code. Roll Tide.)
♦ The Internet’s limitlessness, which provides the ability to publish or link to information simply because you can – “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”
♦ Journalism isn’t just for “journalists.” As the barriers to entry have fallen, the committee used the word “journalism” instead of “journalist.” As the SPJ’s announcement says, the code believes in the idea that “journalism is an endeavor that transcends that of the professional workers and encompasses many people and many forms, the idea of speaking to the act of journalism over the actors.”
♦ Journalism isn’t just made by journalism organizations anymore. The “Be … Transparent” addition to the code’s four values is a nod to organizational changes, and the “Act Independently” entries further define the differences between journalism aimed at serving the public and content created under the guise of journalism.

Simply put, the code is a reminder that journalism should be ethical regardless of platform or pace. I’m reminded of Robert Townsend’s 1970s management book Up the Organization, which included a warning against going too fast when moving to computers: “Make sure your present … system is reasonably clean and effective before you automate. Otherwise your new computer will just speed up the mess.” The code clarifies, and hopes to clean, the messes that speedier journalism can cause.

What I learned

No one paid me to serve on the committee. If you count SPJ membership fees, travel costs and the time invested, then I paid thousands of dollars to be a helper. It was worth it.

Professors are supposed to be lifelong learners, and the code revision provided plenty of lessons. Some takeaways:

♦ It helps to agree on the big things.

While others outside the committee still may not agree with our decision to maintain a “depersonalized” code approach, the committee found its footing when it chose this path.

♦ The following is a false syllogism: We all believe we are ethical. We all are journalists. Therefore, we all can write an ethics code.

While many well-meaning people offered strong suggestions, and many were implemented, others did not understand or accept the committee’s approach.

♦ It requires political acumen to accomplish things in an organization.

People who lived through the 1996 update to the ethics code told stories of the difficulties of passing their revisions, with three versions of the code competing on the floor of the business meeting. As a result, the code was held over for a year.

This year, we listened to comments throughout the process. SPJ held a straw vote of members before the convention, and members overwhelmingly favored the change. In Nashville, committee members sat with everyone who brought suggested changes before the meeting. We settled on nearly all of their concerns, and the few major disagreements went to the floor for a vote. The result was a much smoother process, much more buy-in, and a successful vote. Ethics is sometimes about compromise.

♦ You cannot please everybody.

Some still have fundamental disagreements over principles in the code. Some still quibble over style. A few don’t like anything you do. But only a fool would argue that the SPJ’s Code of Ethics isn’t better.

* The code still remains unenforced and unenforceable.

On Saturday, Sept. 6, the code passed with what the SPJ news release called “a more hardline approach to checkbook journalism. Before, it merely said ‘Avoid bidding for news.’ Now it says ‘… do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.’ ”

On Monday, Sept. 8, broke the most-talked-about U.S. story of the week with video showing NFL Baltimore Ravens back Ray Rice punching his fiancé in an elevator. TMZ paid for the video, prompting New York Times media columnist David Carr to write:

“While networks continue to play peekaboo about whether they pay for news — many do — TMZ is more than happy to pony up for information that will tilt the field and draw hits. A line in the sand long drawn by journalism’s church ladies and observed by most mainstream organizations has all but been blown away. Most people don’t care where the news came from or how it was obtained.”

Does that make the SPJ code irrelevant? Maybe so, in the way that this voluntary-for-journalists code written by a group of volunteers for a not-required-to-join-to-be-a-journalist group has always been irrelevant.

Or maybe not, in that the code likely will attract new members and keep old ones. Moreover, it will remain flag that students, some in the industry, and the public will rally around when they think about what characteristics make for ethical journalism.

♦ A code is merely a code. What matters is each individual.

Jay Black, my academic mentor and co-author, was a member of the SPJ ethics committee in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first edition of his Journal of Mass Media Ethics, he and journal co-founder Ralph Barney wrote The Case Against Mass Media Codes of Ethics, which argues that rule-based codes are ultimately inferior to principles adopted and lived by morally developed practitioners.

Their warnings occurred to me while serving, and the new code is much more focused on the key values and aspirational goals than previous and other codes. Among my few contributions was, when leading the “Seek Truth and Report It” subcommittee during the second revision, trying to arrange that value’s bullet points into a more logical order that begins with aspirations and ends with the minimum expectations of “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

Black published that piece in 1985. But there he was a decade later, working on a code, knowing that it provides a path that leads to morally developed practitioners.

I’m proud to have followed in his footsteps, and to have been part of a smart, dedicated group of people. And decades from now, when I have a tombstone, maybe one of my fellow students can follow in mine.

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Washington Post column on Redskins name change uses different standards for in-print, online publication

By Caroline Meintzer

Protesters in Green Bay before a September game. Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

On Oct. 7, 2013, The Washington Post ran an article in their printed newspaper that included an editorial by Dana Milbank. Milbank’s editorial called out the Washington Redskins’ team name for being racist, and he further illustrated his point by asking people to compare the Redskins name to other racial epithets. In print, he wrote:

To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews and see how they would sound. That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.

The online version, however, ran a bit differently:

“To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets and see how they would sound: The Washington Wetbacks? The Houston Hymies? The Chicago Chinks? Or perhaps the New York Niggers? That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.”


What’s your problem?
Do the same ethical standards apply to the print and online versions of The Washington Post (or any newspaper for that matter)?


Why not follow the rules?
Rules and practices seem hazy regarding the consistency between online and printed journalism. Many media organizations in their practices have drawn a difference between the two, and often that decision seems to be made based on getting more web clicks than out of actual ethical decision-making.

Despite actual practices, many organization and journalists have spoken in promotion of a consistency across platforms for journalism. They say what is justified and unjustified in print should find the same rules online. The Poynter Institute has upheld through various articles and conferences that journalistic principles should be constant across the board. In other words, journalists are journalists no matter what they’re writing for.

These guidelines haven’t been the case for major news organizations, though. In the Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Chris Roberts’s article, “Fit to post but not fit to print,” explains an inconsistency within the New York Times’ promise, “All the news fit to print.” In 2012, the Times published a photo online of a dying diplomat that it wouldn’t publish in the paper, which goes against the very grain of the promise to keep all news within the ethical margins applied to their print paper. They didn’t even offer a warning online about the graphic photo.

So, the rules generally point to holding the same ethical principles across the board; however, however most media outlets don’t seem to follow them.


Who wins, who loses?
By publishing different versions of the story on different mediums, readers are being impacted in different ways. For someone reading the print version, perhaps he or she is winning by not reading a few obscene words at the breakfast table. But then again, maybe he’s losing because the story’s point against the NFL team name, the Redskins, isn’t driven home as strongly without the obscene words. The newspaper, The Washington Post, loses because it lacks consistency across all of its media platforms. It seems to be generalizing its paper and web readers by saying what is and isn’t appropriate for them. It could be argued that it’s stereotyping readers on the web to want obscenity and something extreme and that those reading print are conservative and might have a panic attack about reading an offensive term in the paper.

The Washington Post wins a small battle by not offending readers with its print version of the article, but they lose a larger one by stereotyping their readers and fracturing their ethical standards along lines of different mediums.


What’s it worth?
The idea behind changing the article for print is to minimize harm, one of the major tenants of the SPJ codes. By keeping the print article rather tame, the Post is trying to uphold values of compassion and good taste. However, do those values of compassion change when the readership changes? Is that value worth the same online as it is in print?

For me, this is where I make my case. I think those values should be consistent across the board. Whatever we stand for, whether it’s compassion to the readers by avoiding derogatory terms, or if it’s truth and openness, regardless of the potential ability to offend, we must stand for it on every branch of our organization.

I believe The Washington Post should have the same article in print and online because ethics should be consistent, or else they verge on becoming simple moralizing.

Furthermore, I believe that the chosen version of the article shouldn’t be the safe one that the Post used for print. In fact, I would have gone with the racier version. I know it goes against normal ethical standards for what’s printed. The AP style guide specifically states to avoid using derogatory terms except for in quotes and when pertinent to the story.

The whole point of the editorial, though, is to demonstrate the offensive of the team’s name. When you read the edited version of the article, the author’s examples barely resonate. You practically skip past his line to “substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews” without a second thought. The real article hits you smack in the face. You can’t help but stop and consider his point. In its sanitized version, there isn’t any power, and it defeats the purpose of the article.

So I’d publish it the way it was originally written. I’m sure I would certainly garner a lot of flak, but I believe the rules of ethical journalism are meant to sometimes be broken (higher Kohlberg level, perhaps?). In order for this writer to critique an offensive NFL team name, he had to show its name in the context of other offensive words. I believe people are mature enough to be able to handle it, whether they’re reading it online or in print.

But at the very least, I’ll add an offensive language warning at the top of the editorial. That way, the people can decide it for themselves if they want to read it.

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Jeff Jarvis on why ‘sponsored content,’ advertorials and other blurrings between news and ads are a bad thing

Worth a read today is Jeff Jarvis writing about the blurring between news and advertising content. He argues that advertising that looks like news content is bad because of:

  • Inconsistency in the ethics of news organizations that do this.
  • Conflicts of interest between advertisers and news.
  • Brand value losses for news organizations.

His bottom line: “My advice to news organizations: Move out of the content — and sponsored content — business and get into the service business, where content is just one of your tools to serve the public.”

The only dissonance in his Buzzfeed argument comes when he uses Google as an example of a company that does it right because, among other things, it bans advertorial content at As he writes: “Google is taking over huge swaths of the ad market by providing service to users and sharing risk with advertisers, not by selling its soul in exchange for this quarter’s revenue, as some news organizations are doing.”

Google’s dominance in online advertising is among the many reasons why more news organizations feel pressured to create more advertorial content, even at the soul-selling expense of long-term intangibles such as credibility and influence.

What’s missing in his sentence is the reminder that Google isn’t in the news content creation business. It’s in the service business — of serving other people’s content to audiences. It’s just the best middleman ever. But Google wouldn’t prosper without content to aggregate, and the battle is over how to value that content.

News organizations’ Faustian bargain with Google means the search engine sends traffic to their content, and Google makes money doing it even as it puts downward pressure on online ad rates. (Here are reasons in favor and against the relationship, an argument that publishers are really to blame, and Google’s response. The reasons really don’t matter, because this bell cannot be unrung, even as I used Google to find many of the links for this post.) Still, note that in Germany, after an uproar from news organizations, Google does not sell advertising on its news site and can only provide snippets of third-party content.

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Do journalists work for readers — or their (bosses’) bosses? A CNET and CBS vs. Dish example

Journalists running afoul of the real-or-imagined business interests of their bosses is nothing new.

As a technology columnist for The Birmingham News and Newhouse Newspapers in the 1990s, I remember being told I couldn’t mention AT&T’s debut of its online, searchable Yellow Pages because they competed for ads with the newspaper. (Seems quaint now, doesn’t it?)

The latest example of journalists not thinking of business interests came at the Consumer Electronics Show, after CNET sent a tweet naming Dish Network’s “Hopper with Sling” product was among its finalists for a “Best of CES” award.

As Buzzfeed explains, there’s a problem: CBS owns CNET, and CBS hates “Hopper” because the new digital video recorder makes it easy for viewers to blow, or at least hop, past commercials. CBS hates it so much that it and Fox have sued Dish, because (as Fox says) the Hopper has “the clear goal of violating copyrights and destroying the fundamental underpinnings of the broadcast television ecosystem.”

CBS executives made sure the product didn’t make the CNET’s final Best of CES list, which concluded with with this caveat:

The Dish Hopper with Sling was removed from consideration due to active litigation involving our parent company CBS Corp. We will no longer be reviewing products manufactured by companies with which we are in litigation with respect to such product.

Dish, of course, is claiming that CBS is evil for “censoring” CNET. (Others might argue that Dish has been known to censor, too, by dropping desirable channels over contract disputes.)

Ultimately, this seems to be a case of journalists not knowing that — whether they like it or not — their top loyalty was not allowed to be with readers.

Jan. 14, 2013: An update: Greg Sandoval of CNET has quit over CBS’ interference, saying that journalists “are supposed to be truth tellers.”


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Can campaigning, commentating mix yet still be fair and balanced?

Oct. 7, 2010

As objectivity continues to be a concern and controversial issue among media outlets across the nation, Fox News has entered the center of the discussion.

Fox News has formed a contract with four candidates that are potentially running for the presidential election. The problem for many is that the contract states that these candidates, for the time being, can only talk to Fox News and no other network.

In a statement release by Fox News, the news outlet states, “All contributors are exclusive to Fox News. On occasion, they will make appearances on other networks — when they have books to promote — and in those cases their contributor agreements are suspended during that period. Fox News has made rare exceptions for various contributors in terms of appearances on other networks, but instances are few and far between.” Continue reading Can campaigning, commentating mix yet still be fair and balanced?

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CNN’s Sanchez runs his mouth, loses his job: Is that ethical?

October 5, 2010

CNN news anchor Rick Sanchez was fired on Friday after making some controversial comments about the network and comedian Jon Stewart, the New York Times reported.

Appearing for an interview on Pete Dominick’s satellite radio show on Sept. 30, Sanchez said his network, like the rest of the media, was run by Jewish liberals who didn’t want him to succeed. He went on to say that Stewart held the same belief and was a “bigot.”

Stewart, who is the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has mocked Sanchez at least 20 times on his show in the past five years, the Times later reported. Continue reading CNN’s Sanchez runs his mouth, loses his job: Is that ethical?

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Online lies, different results

Sept. 1, 2010

The early August story of Jenny, the girl who quit her job by using a dry erase board to post a series of nasty comments about her boss, lasted less than a day before it was revealed to be a hoax. (Jenny is actually an actress.)

It’s not the first time the guys behind the hoax have fooled people before. They say it’s fun to see the buzz, to create the online memes, and to fool the media. Continue reading Online lies, different results

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There’s illegal, there’s unethical…

…and there’s illegal and unethical.

Such is the case of Reverb Communications, whose employees in late August 2010 posed as consumers who just happened to love Rock Band so much that they gave it great reviews on iTunes. The company told The New York Times it did no wrong, but said its investigation and other evidence shows that the company systematically placed glowing reviews on products produced by companies it represents.

Continue reading There’s illegal, there’s unethical…

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